The Crozet Islands are one of three subantarctic island groups in the southern Indian Ocean that together form the ‘Terres Australes’ of the Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises (TAAF). They are large islands (though much smaller than Kerguelen, which we visited next), with the two largest islands both exceeding 13,000 ha (in contrast, Campbell Island in the New Zealand subantarctic is about 11,000 ha). There are two groups of islands 100 km apart, and we saw only the eastern group, composed of the largest island (Ile de la Possession) and the highest island (Ile de l’Est) about 11 km to the east.
Ile de la Possession is about 14,500 hectares, and so we saw only a small corner of it. The research station (Base Alfred Faure) is on a plateau 140 m above sea-level and 1.4 km by gravel road from Baie du Marin, which is both a landing beach (e.g. for bulk fuel) and an 18,000 pair king penguin colony. This is the most studied penguin colony on the planet. We met about a dozen researchers working on four projects, including surgical implantation of monitoring devices, a swim tank connected to a respirometry chamber, a buried pit-tag antenna at a ‘gate’ monitoring movements of more than 5,000 pit-tagged birds, and several video cameras set up to monitor focal birds.
We landed at the base by helicopter, and within an hour Charly Bost took me on a looping walk to the penguin colony via a white-chinned petrel study colony and one of the wandering albatross study colonies. We saw interesting plants en route (including Kerguelen cabbage = Pringlea, and cushions of Azorella), and disturbed an Eaton’s pintail from its nest of 5 eggs under a tussock. This small duck is very rare on Possession Island, which has ship rats. This was the only pintail I saw in 2 days ashore, and it was probably benefitting from rat control around the white-chinned petrel colony.
The two white-chinned petrels that we examined closely were both as ‘white-chinned’ as a bird that I saw off Kaikoura in June 2008, and which was most likely a vagrant from the Indian Ocean. Other populations (including those on the Auckland, Campbell and Antipodes Islands south of New Zealand) have much smaller white chins, often barely detectable at sea.
The wandering albatrosses were on the cusp of two breeding seasons, with half a dozen fully-grown fledglings yet to depart (most had gone), and the next season’s males occupying potential breeding sites. There was more courtship action in the late afternoon, when more females were on shore. We also saw a small gentoo penguin colony before arriving at the king penguins, which shared the beach with many elephant seals, over 100 Crozet black-faced sheathbills, a few Antarctic terns fishing in the shallows, and a small colony of Crozet Island shags.
After a buffet lunch at the base, I joined two ornithologists from the base to check band numbers on returning wandering albatrosses. Four of us were supposed to be sleeping on mattresses in the library below the bar at the base. But as the party went all night (farewelling about 10 of the base members, who were departing on the Marion Dufresne), I did not get much sleep.
The following morning Charly and I were joined by one of the penguin researchers on a walk to Pointe de Bougainville, about 3 km to the south. The main objectives were light-mantled sooty albatrosses and Crozet Island shag breeding sites. We found both, plus large downy chicks of northern giant petrels. There were also spectacular coastal landscapes and interesting plant communities.
After lunch, there was time for a last visit to the king penguin colony before returning to the ship. I photographed a sheathbill that was attempting to disrupt a penguin chick being fed, by flying at the chick’s head to knock it away from the parent’s beak just as food was being passed. It eventually succeeded, causing a spillage and a sheathbill feeding frenzy.
A 2-minute helicopter flight had us back on board the Marion Dufresne by 5 pm, and we departed for Iles Kerguelen an hour later. We passed by the south coast of large, rugged, (rarely visited) cloud-topped Ile de l’Est (East Island) which has rabbits (but not rats) and is an even more important seabird breeding site than Ile de la Possession. It has vast colonies of Salvin’s prions, king penguins and macaroni penguins among others, and thousands of birds were returning to the island at dusk.
Te Papa curator of vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly’s participation in seabird research programmes on the French subantarctic island groups of Crozet and Kerguelen was at the invitation of Dr Charly Bost of the CEBC laboratory (Chizé) of CNRS (Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique), France, and was supported by the Institut Polar Français Paul Emile Victor (IPEV) and Te Papa.
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